$10,000 and Mont Blanc Pen

There is this essay contest in which you can win $10,000 and a Mont Blanc pen, so I thought I’d enter it. You also get a trip to a writer’s conference in Italy, bringing the total value of the grand prize to approximately $17, 775, according to the fine print on the contest website. Even third prize ain’t bad–it’s $1000 and a Mont Blanc pen. I’ve taken a few second and third prizes in my time, and while it’s not as glamorous as a full-on win, there’s a certain pleasure in the obscurity of being the 1997 American Psychological Association Second-Prize College Scholarship Recipient. I am particularly proud of winning that second prize. It makes it sound like I won a college scholarship for lunatics, but I wasn’t quite as crazy as some other kid in Toledo.

As I get older and my ideals wither and I become more materialistic and less concerned about Art and Total Autonomy, which seems to have become the main point of my life–wait a minute! That’s not true! I am more concerned than ever about Art and Total Autonomy! I have spent the last week in despair because I read the Ben Marcus essay in Harper’s which is a response to the Franzen essay in Harper’s and Marcus says that to be an artist you have to be truly original and not rip things off and also all the reviews of Zadie Smith’s new novel accuse her of ripping everything off, only because she herself accused herself of this in a review she wrote of herself, a simultaneously narcisisstic and self-effacing act of the sort I admire, and after I read these essays and reviews I became convinced that I am ripping everyone off, consciously and unconsciously, and when you come to this website seeking Original Thought you are actually getting an imitation of an imiation of an imitation, a copy of a copy of a copy. Who is the theorist who wrote about a copy of a copy of a copy? Is it Barthes? I remember wandering back to my dorm room terribly stoned late one night and my roommate at the time, Kaveena, who kept even odder hours than I (she would take naps at two or three a.m.) had read whoever this theorist was and she was talking about it lucidly and clearly but all I heard were the words “copy of a copy of a copy” while I spun around inside the swirls of her paisley velour bedspread. A copy of a copy of a copy. That’s all I am. But what can you expect? That’s all we all are. DNA, after all, isn’t it just a copy of a copy of a copy? We are all just copies, and sex is the Xerox machine. Our best hope at an originality is an act of mutation. Should we strive for mutation in art? Or is it mutiny? Can’t remember. Can’t decide.

But it’s just as well. We can’t worry about things like that, it slows us down and stops us from Doing Good Work and Having A Good Time.

I tried to write my essay many times, but it wasn’t happening. The loaded question was, “What’s on the minds of American youth today?”

What a fucking stupid question, I thought. America’s Youth is not a monolithic entity and only someone incredibly shortsighted, not to mention old, could see them/us/them–us!–that way. But still, given my day job (tutoring of the Youth) and my level of maturity (seventeen and holding) and my chronological age (twenty-six and not thrilled about it, so totally have I identified myself with being a person who is beginning that I am horrified to find out that I have already, to some degree, become), maybe I have something to say about this. I noodled around with half-baked sentences about iPods and Instant Messaging, materialism and nihilism, unity and individuality, the sensory deprivation of video games, the revoltuoinary power of music, blah blah blah, but it was not flowing.

Trying to do your work when you’d rather be doing anything than your work is excruciating. You can try all your little tricks to get yourself in the Zone but if you are not in the Zone it’s like pulling teeth. I gave up entirely on trying to win $10,000 and a Mont Blanc pen and a free trip to Italy and mixed myself a martini and fired up the DVD player for tonight’s allotment of M*A*S*H. After a whole episode and only quarter of my martini (ladies sip), I fell most unexpectedly into the Zone, or at least what I perceived to be the Zone. Sometimes what we perceive to be the Zone of our most quality productivity is actually a bargain basement of our most derivative, incoherent schlock. But we can’t worry about things like that, it slows us down and stops us from Doing Good Work and Having A Good Time.

So now is the part of the evening where I give thanks to the great martini, uncorker of secrets, illuminator of minds, unlocker of inspiration. I don’t think I’m really going to win $10,000, a Mont Blanc pen and a trip to Italy, but at least I gave it the old college try.

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